birds of australia with hayley and michael: the emu

Dear No Award; I’m excited to be bringing you a new monthly column here at No Award: Birds of Australia with Hayley and Michael, surely Ornithology’s Margaret and David. I say ‘I’ despite this being a shared blog because my co-host, Liz, is on record as having some bird issues. Please avert your eyes if your issues are like hers, and go bitch about birds on her personal blog!

I’ve got some strong feelings about birds in Australia. We say birds in Australia because this column will not be limited to birds indigenous to Australia; Michael and Hayley will also end up visiting introduced and exotic birds! Yes! Excellent! Each bird will be described, analysed and discussed, rated for gender politics, post-colonialism, awesomeness and whatever else our reviewers feel like, and then given a rating out of five feathers.

Dr Michael Livingston is a professional killjoy, occasional bird-nerd and part-time food blogger. You can find him writing about vego food at Where’s the Beef. Hayley Inch works for a bunch of film festivals. She writes frequently about food at Ballroom Blintz, very sporadically about film at 240 Films, and about many Melbourney things at Broadsheet. She’d be a better birdwatcher if she didn’t get so loud when excited.

Please do not be scared by our first bird, the Emu, which is basically the greatest bird ever after the penguin.

friend troy forlornly trying to feed an emu
friend troy forlornly trying to feed an emu

Michael says:

It’s fitting that we start this column off with the Emu, probably Australia’s most famous bird (rivalled by what, the Kookaburra? The Lyrebird?).  It adorns the Australian coat of arms and the 50c piece, is the namesake of Australia’s preeminent ornithology journal and even has its own brand of beer. The emu’s appeal is pretty straightforward – it’s two metres tall, flightless, distributed across the entire country (except Tassie) and a common sight for anyone driving through country Australia.  Shockingly, the emu wasn’t even nominated in the recent Australia’s Favourite Bird poll, an oversight I can’t begin to understand.

My second vivid bird-related memory (the first is being hunted by a terrifying pack of ‘domesticated’ vicious geese as a toddler) is of a baffling emu that roamed Brampton Island in the 1980s (for a brief time our family was upwardly mobile and holidayed on tropical islands). You’d see it loitering outside the cabins or roaming the beach, kicking up spray as it sprinted through the sea foam. It’s a sad story looking back – it was probably dumped on the island for novelty value and must have been lonely and confused. But as a kid it just felt unworldly – being a few metres from this odd creature, hearing its weird drumming calls and watching it sprint at incredible speeds  was a hint at how compelling the natural world can be.  Despite seeing hundreds of emus since then, a tiny remnant of that visceral thrill still sparks every time. They’re abundant birds, but there’s nothing common about them.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emu,_Jurong_BirdPark.JPG

They’re distinctive, but not particularly attractive birds, with drab brown and black feathers and a splash of blue at the neck. Their wings are tiny and useless, while their legs are strong enough to rip down fences, fend off dingoes and propel them at speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour. They eat anything and everything – native and introduced plants and fruits, bugs, moths, caterpillars, charcoal, stones – they’ll even eat car keys apparently. The emu’s gender politics are excellent, with the male taking on most of the work of bringing up the young. He spends two months incubating around a dozen beautiful green eggs, surviving only on body fat, dew and any scraps he can reach from the nest and losing a third of his body weight before the chicks hatch. Meanwhile, the female wanders off after laying the eggs and may breed again elsewhere, with another male emu.

So they’re a fascinating, distinctive and surprisingly feminist bird – I’m taking half a mark off because of their cold dead eyes and aggressive posturing and another half a mark purely because of this dreadful song that has been stuck in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this. So four feathers out of five from me.

Hayley says:

Michael has given an excellent overview of this most iconic of Australian birds, but if we’re going to talk emus (pronunciation guide: ee-mews, not ee-moos, for the love of god) we must address the most batshit amazing thing about them: the Emu War, aka that time the Australian government unleashed the might of the military against a species of native fauna, and the fauna WON.

“The Emu Battle – Volley of Questions” Canberra Times Friday, 18 November, 1932, page 3.

So it’s 1932, and bunch of returned WWI soldiers had taken to farming the Campion district in Western Australia. The only problem? EMUS. EMUS EVERYWHERE. Emus eating wheat and knocking down fences, thousands upon thousands of them. What were the diggers to do?

The farmers petitioned the Minister of Defence, Sir George Pearce, with a plan. See, they had military experience and figured that there was only one thing that was going to successfully eradicate their feathered foe: MACHINE GUNS. They figured that if a brace of Lewis machine guns were so good at mowing down soldiers, they would do the same for the emus. Sir George was only too ready to agree, figuring that the birds would make ingenious target practice for the idling Australian military.

The emus weren’t having with any of this colonialist tame-the-land-and-shoot-all-the-native-species bullshit. Once the deployed soldiers actually started having a go at massacring some birds in November 1932 they quickly discovered that the emus were devious strategists, and ambushed mobs would very quickly split into smaller groups and scatter, making them much harder targets to hit than anticipated. Even hitting the emus apparently didn’t faze them; soldiers were gobsmacked at how many bullets an emu could take without bringing the bird down (so emus are clearly well-disguised Terminators).

Major G.P.W. Meredith, military head of the campaign, later claimed that just under 1000 emus died during the brief war, with estimates that a further 2500 birds would have died from injuries, but considering there were 20000 emus in the area it hardly made much difference. The war became a laughing stock in parliament, with Pearce being labelled “the Minister for the Emu War” and prompting this hilarious exchange in the House of Representatives:

Mr Thorby (NSW): “Who is responsible for the farce of hunting emus with machine guns mounted on lorries? Is the Defence Department meeting the cost?

Prime Minister Lyons: “I have been told the Defence Department will not be paying the bill.”

Mr James (NSW): “Is a medal to be struck for this war?”

The Emu War barely lasted a month, and despite repeated calls throughout the next few years from Campion residents to bring back the army to deal with all these goddamn emus, no one in authority was ever game to take them on again. The emu was just too invincible an opponent.

So as you can see, emus are freaking bad-arse and you should afford them with RESPECT. I have to take off half a feather due to them not being the most lethal ratite in the country (that award goes to the southern cassowary, alias a motherfucking dinosaur in bird form), but otherwise the emu receives a highly commendable four and a half feathers out of five.

Bird: Emu
Michael: Four out of Five Feathers
Hayley: Four and a Half Feathers

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3 thoughts on “birds of australia with hayley and michael: the emu

  1. Emus feature in one of my first memories of Australia. Imagine me, a tiny little almost-8-year-old American girl, moved to this exciting strange country only a few weeks before, on my first visit to a wildlife sanctuary to meet the locals. I was in the emu enclosure with my dad, too afraid of the emus to try to feed them. They must sense fear. One emu came up to me, stared me in the face, and found me lacking in either courage or emu food. It pecked my shoelace undone, then kicked me in the shin and ran away.

    I love all other Australian birds, but emus are bullies and we can never be friends.

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